After 6 months of the pandemic with no signs of stopping, there is a constant uncertainty that plagues our day to day lives. It can lead us to feel anxious, worried, and even hopeless at times. Beyond our friends and family, and mental health professionals, it is hard to know who to turn to for answers. Perhaps that is because there is no baseline for understanding what we are all going through right now and how to best cope.
But, someone who does understand living through the uncertainty of trauma is Dr. Edith Eger, who as a teenager living in Hungary in 1944 was sent to Auschwitz. Though her parents died in the gas chamber, her bravery kept her and her sister alive. She then went on to get her degree in psychology, mentored by Viktor Frankl himself.
At almost 93 years old, her birthday is the 29 of September, she says she feels the youngest she has ever felt and considers her work as a therapist her calling and reason for survival. She does not believe in retirement and still sees patients for much of her time. She also has a new book, The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, out this month and, at least between 7:30 and 8:00 pm, you can find her watching Jeopardy as she is a big fan of Alex Trebek.
She has been drawing on her lived experience to help patients during this time. She notes she does not like the word crisis, but instead the word transition and feels “it is up to us, how we are going to use the time.” These are the 5 tips she has for she has for all of us trying to cope right now.
1) Live In The Present, Remember The Past:
Dr. Eger explains that she aims to live her life as much as she can in the present and not in the past, as otherwise, she would still be a prisoner. Of course, she will still have times where she parks at the grocery store and sees barbed wire and is reminded of the camps, or hears a fire engine and is brought back to Auschwitz, but, it is now fleeting. She feels happy to be here and not there. When she thinks of her past she says, “I don’t stay there, but I don’t fight it or run from it either.”
When trying to stay present, if she does think of the past, she avoids what she “should have” and “could have” done and advises others to do the same. She explains that is something you absolutely cannot change and if she looked back there are so many things she would have done. For example, her parents would have been in America as they had tickets to come, but they did not know to leave. It helps, instead, to live as she does, in the present, but to not forget the past.
In doing so, we can learn from our ancestors and their experiences and though we don’t know what is happening tomorrow, and can feel hopeless or helpless, we know they have survived before, and so we can, too. She says, “I like the idea of the ancestors…they did not give up and we carry that blood, of survivors, not victims.”
2) We Can’t Change The External Environment, But We Can Change Our Internal One:
When Dr. Eger was in Auschwitz she learned one of the greatest tools for survival was she could control her internal world, even if she had no control over anything externally happening to her, her peers, her family, or the greater world outside. She said, “I was still able to create a world within me that no one really could touch, my peace of mind.” It is helpful during hard times to think about them being temporary, she says, but also to shift our expectations and attitudes to being realistic, not idealistic. In other words, where can one find hope and positivity that can actually be accomplished? This might involve shifting our mindset from “I’m trying and I need to” to “I can and I will.”
3) Self Love Is Self Care:
Dr. Eger points out that we often feel narcissistic when we talk about loving ourselves or saying to ourselves that we care. In fact, we are often nicer to our friends and family than we are to ourselves. Dr. Eger emphasizes that self-love is critical to survival, especially during challenging times, and she believes we should get up in the morning, as she does every morning, and say “[insert name here], I love you” in the mirror. Loving ourselves, she explains, is caring for ourselves and starting our day with this affirmation will start our day as “powerful and purposeful as possible.”
4) Grief Is Your Own:
During this time, grief manifests in many ways. People are grieving the loss of school, planned events, sports, and life. With such a broad spectrum of loss, many then feel guilty when they feel their grief is not equal to death, for example, and does not “deserve” to be grieved in the same way. As someone who has experienced the deepest grief, Dr. Eger has seen this in patients and some have even told her that they are not sure they can tell her about their traumatic experiences because of what she has been through. But, she explains it is not good to compare grief as “I do it my way and you do it your way. There is no such thing as doing it the right way. I can only be right for me and you can only be right for you.” Or, as grief expert David Kessler says, “The worst loss is always your loss.”
5) Look For The Gift In Everything:
Despite all of the hardship in her life, Dr. Eger believes there is a gift in everything and that is part of how we should look at this current time. She says, “it is up to us how we are going to use the time. Are we going to complain or blame or [instead] somehow recognize that maybe there is a gift here that we can get together and regroup and decide to not say ‘why me?’ but ‘what now?’”
She emphasizes, again, that hope is found within a person and never something to find or look for outside of yourself. But, it is the events that we endure that make us stronger, and in the end, “it is not what happens, it is what we do with it.”